Monday, 30 November 2020

Why street trees are a problem

 

No soil, no fungi, no understory - sad trees on an urban street

I thought I'd write about trees. This is prompted by the seemingly egregious (but probably entirely justified) decision by Doncaster Council to fell a row of mature limes along a street in their patch. This, of course, brought back the story from neighbouring Sheffield which came over all lumberjack a year or two ago resulting in lots of shouting from all and sundry.

Anyway, Doncaster:

Months after work was halted following initial protests, after dark on Monday evening workers fenced off the four remaining trees on the road and on Tuesday began sawing them down, prompting local activists to climb the trees, and protest beneath them.

The Council has removed 60 trees (I note with curiosity that the felling only became a story after 56 trees were already firewood) from Middlefield Road in Bessacar and lots of people are posting the resulting barren streetscene with sad faced emojis and outraged comments. The Council explains that it is removing the trees because "(t)he trees and roots on Middlefield Road have been causing safety issues and damage to boundary walls, driveways and footpaths for a number of years".

I was a local councillor for 24 years and, for a good few of those years, lived in a property with mature trees all along its boundary (which for reasons of location encompassed over 20 neighbours). Trees are a problem. Except that is when they present a political opportunity (and when this opportunity has gone the trees return to their previous staus of 'problem'). This isn't an anti-tree thing but a description of the reality - read that Doncaster Council explanation again - safety issues and damage to boundary walls, driveways and footpaths. You've spotted something there haven't you?

The reason for Doncaster Council's belated decision to remove the lime trees is that local people - probably not the ones hugging the trees - have complained to the Council about the Council's trees. "That tree's roots have damaged my garden wall", "the tree is taking all my light", "how do you know its safe, it might crush my car, my child could be in the garden" - these and a hundred other complaints and concerns are what you get if you're the local councillor (or the owner of the naughty trees).

The owners of trees, even Councils, patiently explain the rules of trees to people. "No it isn't my reponsibility to pick up the leaves in your garden", "yes you get seedling trees growing, just pull them up", "you can remove branches overhanging your property so long as this doesn't kill the tree", "no I don't have to pay for removing those branches, they're your problem so your cost", "yes, I have a responsibility to ensure the tree is safe and it is checked regularly", "yes if my tree blows over in a storm, your home insurance will cover the damage, you do have home insurance?"

Street trees add a further risk because of the enthusiasm of people for sueing councils when they trip over on pavements. As an aside, this is (along with cost) one big reason why councils replace flagstones and paving stones with tarmac. Returning to trees, they damage the pavements - you've all seen it cracked, stones lifted - and the public complain about this damage: "it's not safe" they cry and the highways officer trundles out to look and, given what's plain to see, has to agree with the complaining residents. So they summon the arboriculturalist (usually referred to as "trees") who looks at the tree and says "nice tree, no reason to cut it down". This process is repeated year after year until one day the arboriculturalist says something like "this tree is old and could be unsafe", which is enough for the highways people to get out the chain saws and remove the source of all those endless complaints. It's replaced with another, smaller and less troubling tree.

Putting trees in rows on streets, surrounded by bricks and concrete is, as Peter Wohlleben observed in "The Hidden Life of Trees", an act amounting to cruelty - in effect caging in the trees:

"Are you surprised that summer storms topple a particularly large number of street trees? Their puny underground anchoring systems - which in Nature could cover more than 700 square yards and are now restricted to an area shrunk to a tiny percentage of that - are not capable of supporting trunks that weigh many tons."

Wohlleben goes on to describe how street trees can't cool down at night, live in a world of constant light and an environment of exhaust fumes. Such trees lack the fungal and insect support systems that make the forest a pleasure and are damaged by dog pee and salt. We like the trees for all those good, green and caring reasons but simply plonking trees in cramped rows alongside the street is not, for forest trees like those limes in Doncaster, the right environment.

We now have national campaigns for more street trees but maybe we need to think differently. Instead of planing the trees alongside the road and storing up all those problems for future residents as well as making the poor tree suffer, why not design suburbia with marginalia, with undeveloped pockets left to their own foresty devices? Why not drop the 'gentle' density proposal and go in the opposite direction with bigger house plots featuring more garden - communal or private? Why not wide central, tree lined boulevards where the trees have the space needed without crowding the houses?

Trees are important. Britain - England especially - has done a good job recovering from a historically low level of tree cover of the mid-20th century. Today England's level of tree cover approaches that of the 11th century, still a long way short of the forest extent of Germany or Italy but a steady recovery back to ancient levels of woodland. But more than just trees, what we should be planting are woods. As Robert Macfarlane describes in Underland, woods are almost entities themselves, a mixture of trees, plants, fungi, lichen and moss that function as a whole providing a living space for insects, birds and small mammals. Plonking trees in rows because they look good is the equivalent of the old-fashioned zoo but, instead of cages filled with unhappy animals for humans to gawk at, we get rows of sad trees assuaging human guilt about our environment.

Organisations like Create Streets argue for more street trees with what amounts to an aesthetic abandon leavened by the occasional hint that more greenery makes cities healthier. But at no point do they consider the idea from the trees' perspective - what is the best environment for these trees to thrive - preferring a sort of human arrogance that results in poor quality trees lacking in the support systems allowing for a real woodland eco-system. Yes, let's get more urban woodland, let's rewild redundant city spaces instead of piling up another high rise. But let this not be simply trees neatly spaced out by architects and stuck in little concrete holes where they spend their shortened lives seeking water, fungi and friendship.

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Sunday, 29 November 2020

Want your grandchildren to pay higher rents and have no prospect of owning a home? Be like Simon Jenkins and the NIMBYs - oppose planning reforms

 

Once again Simon Jenkins has let rip about proposals to reform our sclerotic and divisive planning system. It is, as so often with columns in national newspapers, a catalogue of errors all misrepresentation all littered with emotive anecdote and non sequitur. It does, however, capture the NIMBY ideology:

The paper promises to shift the appearance of England. It intends to throw open landscapes, especially across the south-east, to uncontrolled “build, build, build”. It will tip wealth yet further towards London and end any levelling-up of the north. It will abolish the ages-old distinction in British planning between built-up areas and the 70-80% of land that is still rural. It will leave poorer city centres to decline, result in villages doubling or trebling in size, and building dribbling from one town into the next. Fields and open spaces will disappear.

The White Paper, of course, doesn't promise any of these things because every single one of them is false. What the proposals ask for is a system that provides certainty - for landowner, for developer and, above all, for local communities. Right now everybody bar a few planning academics hates our planning system. Talk to a housebuilder and (taking a few paces backwards) listen as the explain how the system means they've millions in scarce working capital tied up in undeveloped land and how the process of getting a permission to build is tortuous and prohibitatively expensive. Even with the best lawyers there's still only an evens chance of the permission getting approved.

Fine, you say, that's only a greedy developer talking, what about real people? Thing is that they hate it too. Talk to a local councillor and hear how they bang their head against the system, how planners don't listen, how the rules are inconsistent and poorly enforced. Then chat to a few residents who'll tell you that the system is stacked against communities, how the planners decide on an essentially arbitrary basis and, probably, that they think it's all corrupt.

This is the system that Simon Jenkins is defending, a system that nobody fully understands, that is filled with inconsistencies and confusion, and that places too much discretionary power in the hands of planners, councillors and the secretary of state. Jenkins rather strangely, claims that the proposals were "slipped out with a minimum of publicity", which will come as a surprise to newspapers like The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Mail who all gave prominent (and slightly negative) coverage to the White Paper or to the thousands of submissions made to the Government's consultation on the proposals. Jenkins even makes this claim with a link to a substantial (and error-strewn) article based on egregious comments from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in the same newspaper.

Nowhere else in the world has a planning system like Britain's. There are some places - California, British Colombia, New South Wales, New Zealand, Catalonia - with systems that, while different, are equally divisive, but nowhere else in the world has a system that makes strategic land allocations and then allows local councils to override those allocations by refusing permission to develop. Even more stupidly, the British system has local councils making the strategic plans and then the same councillors refusing development entirely based on the strategic plan they earlier approved.

Jenkins, however, goes on to double down on his misrepresentation of the proposals. The starting point (something the actual white paper actually seeks to end) is a scare story about a "mutant algorithm" that will decide where housing development should go. Remember that, for NIMBYs like Jenkins, housing needs to go somewhere else - ideally run down inner cities a long way from their lovely semi-rural idyll. This applies doubly so to housing for poor people. After all what benefit would such people gain from being able to live in a tidy little market town or a newly expanded village?

The current national housing strategy, for all its relative success next to those from previous governments, isn't sustainable. Without a significant increase in the land available for development, it is unlikely that even the current, barely sufficient, levels of new housing will not continue. "Brownfield land", "regeneration", "the north" shout the fans of our discretionary, NIMBY-dominated planning system. Yet the brownfield sites they point to are a long way from the jobs, from the good schools, from the health networks and communities that make for a good life. Above all these sites are a long way from where people want to live. Yet Jenkins and other NIMBYs tell us to build unfriendly tower blocks into which to cram all those unfortunates not able to buy into their far suburban part of England's countryside.

The NIMBYs go on to say that planning liberalisation means no more open countryside. Here's Jenkins:

Planners expect that, among other results, this will put the overwhelming majority of farmland “into play”. One told me: “It puts every meadow under a death sentence.”.

Really? Current housing - every last bit of it - covers just 5% of England - even less in Scotland and Wales. Rural England is not under any threat at all from planning reform. Jenkins moans about "villages doubling or trebling in size" without even hesitating for a second to wonder whether a village getting, as my South Pennine village has done, some 20% bigger might just be a way to keep the pub going, to support the chemist, the post office and village shop. It might be a way to justify keeping a regular bus service and to stop the local primary merging with the one from the next village.

We have a chance to create a zoning system that, as well as removing the uncertainty of out discretionary method, allows for a locally-determined approach to new development while protecting the buildings and places we value most highly. There's a determined effort - from the likes of Jenkins, from the NIMBY campaign group CPRE, and from a variety of vested interests - to oppose the proposals and to maintain a system where there are no winners except homeowners on the suburban fringe and the politicians who exploit their fears.

It is striking, although maybe less surprising that we think, that The Guardian has given so much space to NIMBYs and those who profit from NIMBYism. The headlines on planning read more like you'd expect from the Daily Mail with "new slums" and "mutant algorithms" rubbing shoulders with ridiculous claims that you can meet housing need without providing the land on which to build the houses. Look at how Labour-run Croydon Council's 'Brick by Brick' housing company has failed, not least because it simply couldn't secure permissions for the land it needed to meet its repayment obligations to the Council. In true Guardian style, this Council fooled itself that it could deliver much needed social and affordable housing without making substantial releases from Croydon's 'green belt'. The result is the fnancial collapse of the Council while the homes needed by local residents still aren't built.

We need planning reform. We need a system that has the confidence - or at least some confidence - of communities, developers, landowners and planners. Jenkins (falsely) argues that "(n)o other modern country has decontrolled its land use to this degree" without realising that the idea isn't 'decontrol' but rather for a system much more like that in France or Germany or Texas where, compared to too much of England, housing is afforable. All those other 'modern' countries have a zoning system and Britain moving in this policy direction makes us more, not less, like such nations in terms of land use control. Without reform, we condemn Jenkins grandchildren - a whole generation - to the prospect of only being able to afford a home through inheritance or other financial good fortune. Worse, the millions who want to own a home and can't will find themselves stuck in a world of spiralling rents, exploitative landlords and overwhelmed social housing management. The world that gave us Grenfell,

.....

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Communities should still have a say over housing allocations, it's organised NIMBYs that shouldn't

 

Q1. Do you believe local people should have a say over what development is delivered in their community with respect to specific planning applications and specific development sites?

This was the first question is a survey of 40 Conservative MPs conducted for NIMBY group, CPRE. Everybody's favourite NIMBYs were looking into (in a way that seems just a tad pushing) attitudes to the government's white paper on planning reform.

This question, presented with different elements of spin depending on the group doing the presenting, is the trojan horse for the NIMBY groups who want to maintain the ability to use local lobbying by a minority to prevent housing development and, in doing so, protect the interests of home-owners on the urban fringe.

The proposals in the white paper are to shift public consultation and engagement about the principle of development to the local plan stage instead of leaving it open to challenge when a planning application is lodged. So there are no proposals to stop the public having "a say" over the nature and location of development in their community, just proposals to stop that local plan stage being second guessed at planning committee.

There are something like 80,000 objections lodged to planning applications (and remember that petitions usually record as just one objection) every year in England. Some of these representations are sensible and genuine - 'the proposed exension next door blocks my light' or 'the new window looks straight into my daughter's bedroom' - and the development management process is very good at mitigating and resolving these problems (mostly, but not always, to people's satisfaction). But a load more of the objections are essentially 'I don't want houses in the field next to my house' with no justification beyond this desire. It is these objections that are marshalled by local politicians (and MPs keen to be seen as 'active' in their constituency) and encouraged by NIMBY groups like CPRE, and it is this purposeless objection to the principle of development that the government wants to end.

I know the objections are not always as bluntly and selfishly put - lots of stuff about 'community' (school places, doctors, cars on the roads, 'infrastructure'), is accompanied by faux-environmental issues (bats, badgers, orchids, trees, seasonal field flooding) all presented because the objectors think they might trigger a refusal rather than because they'd ever given a moment's thought to any of these things. What the zoning system does is remove the use of such things to prevent development - there'll still be an application process but it will be about compliance with design codes, mitigating identified risks and securing developer contribution to infrastructure. CPRE know that if all applications within a zone are what planners call 'reserved matters' and cannot change the principle of development then the power of the NIMBY group is diminished.

This is the biggest and most beneficial change proposed in the white paper. It removes the worst sort of politics from a planning system where a vociferous minority pushes aside the interests of other groups. You seldom see people writing to the council in support of development but this doesn't mean new housing doesn't have considerable support. I saw a glimpse of this with a proposed development in the next village. The Parish Council objected to the reuse of a redundant mill and associated land for housing - apparently it's a mill so it should be for employment. I popped a comment on the local Facebook forum saying what a silly response from the Parish Council and got dozens of likes - far outnumbering the loud and angry sorts who supported the Parish Council.

By shifting the decision about the principle of development up to the level of a plan, we don't remove the ability of local communities to have a say about development. What we do is reduce the political power of opposing housing and provide certainty to developers, which will enable us to have a fighting chance of getting the homes we need to today's a future generations.

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Monday, 23 November 2020

The 'red wall' didn't fall because of Brexit or Boris. It fell because suburbs are conservative.

New housing in the 'red wall'

Some few years ago I went to Rotherham, more specifically Rother Valley, to do what were called "ward walks" with some Conservative councillors. The Party, from a base of near zero, had got to ten councillors and I helped them with getting the Conservative group in place properly, with ensuring the Council recognised and supported the group. And I walked around Anston and Woodsetts ward (which today has no Conservative councillors). What struck me back then was the, at least superficial similarity, between this ward and the one I represented on Bradford council. But, that is, for one essential difference - in Bingley Rural approaching 60% of the electorate were voting Conservative whereas in the lovely rural part of the Rother Valley we'd be lucky if we scraped to 35%.

The difference lies in history - Anston and Woodsetts is a former mining community with everything politically that accompanies such places. And, as we walked round it over a decade ago, you could see the changes taking place. Not that the old pit village wasn't still central but that it was being developed - new housing, smart little semi-detached homes, little estates of those popular detached homes, and a sprinkling of new terraces and splendid big houses. And, while some of the people buying these houses were the sons and daughters of the miners from those now closed pits the town is now changed, as its conservation society observes:

Most residents work in the neighbouring towns such as Sheffield or Rotherham, making Anston a 'dormitory' town with few residents taking an interest in its history or working to maintain its identity. Those qualities that attracted people to settle in Anston in the first place are being destroyed.

Setting aside the idea of heritage lost beneath a tide of suburbanisation and the romanticising of coalmining, what's happening here is a reflection of what has happened across what's now called the "red wall" - places that, after generations of tribal Labour voting, suddenly switched to the Conservatives in 2019. The London media can't get enough of talking about "these places" (as one leading London-based columnist slightly dismissively called them) with reams of analysis, story and commentary littering the pages of newspapers and news websites.

The assumption is that the change came about because long time Labour voters in places like the Rother Valley switched to voting Conservative. As ever the process of political changes was presented as a binary contest with places like Anston assumed to be more-or-less unchanging. The votes are only leant to the Conservatives, say the pundits. Once Brexit is done, the Party can't assume they'll keep the votes. And yes, maybe this is true, just as it's also true that some older, Brexit-voting ex-miners switched to the Conservatives. But the real truth about the 'red wall' is a demographic one - these places have changed how they vote because the people living there have changed.

To appreciate how this gradual change works, we can look at an earlier 'red wall' - North Kent. In 1997 Labour won 8 of the 10 seats here - failing only in Canterbury and Faversham & Mid Kent, In 2019, Labour held just one seat, Canterbury. In Sittingborne & Sheppey, held by Labour up to 2010, Gordon Henderson's majority last December was 24,470 with approaching 70% of the vote. Just as in Rother Valley, some of this is about Labour voters switching over Brexit but most of it is a similar demographic change to that seen in Anston. Look along the Kent coast, at places like Ebbsfleet, and you see swathes of development - more of those tidy but ordinary suburban houses filled with people flung out by London's expensiveness, noisiness and crime.

Back in 2010 I suggested that several seats were worth watching - Rother Valley, Don Valley, Bassetlaw, Wakefield and North West Leicestershire. These are all, other than the Leicestershire seat (where Andrew Bridgen's majority is now over 20,000), 'red wall' seats. The change wasn't a sudden shift but a gradual one reflecting the suburbanising of semi-rural and rural places close to larger cities. Changes in the distribution of employment, people preferring a suburban to an urban lifestyle and the search for affordability all lead to this change. None of this suggests that these seats are all set to be Conservative forever but it is to say that, just as the reverse is true of London seats like Hornsey & Wood Green or Croydon North, demography is making them increasingly conservative inclined.

The collapse of the 'red wall' wasn't some sort of magic wrought by Boris Johnson, nor was it simply a result of Brexit. The collapse was predictable in local council elections and in demographic change going back a dozen years and more. This change continues as across the North and Midlands new housing development and new employment is more and more focused on these suburban places, especially ones close to the motorway network. This may be a frustration for fans of the outdated city model of the economy (as well as for NIMBY activists) but, as ever, the choices of people don't always match the preferences of planners. For much of its history, especially post-WWII, the Conservative Party has been a party of suburbia and the collapse of the 'red wall' came about in large part because the places in that wall changed from industrial village to dormitory town - they became suburbs. In thinking about policy, about 'levelling up', a Conservative government should keep this suburban truth at the front of its mind.

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Friday, 20 November 2020

'Levelling up' is as much about attention as it is money (a message for London Sorts)

 

All it needs is a nice deli and a vegan cafe

People in London, you know the sort - columnists in the Times, think tank wallahs, special advisors to junior ministers - are talking about 'levelling up' again. Nobody in the rest of the country is talking about levelling up. Our conversation can be summed up as "when will this bloody pandemic end" or variants on this sentiment including words like 'pub', 'holiday', 'gym' and 'grandchildren'.

The levelling up talk from these London Sorts isn't about what the term might actually mean or even about how to help people in (another popular phrase with London Sorts) 'left behind' places have happier, healthier and wealthier lives. That would be too simple. Instead the London Sorts talk about what will make it seem like there's been a levelling up:

Levelling up must mean more than just new schools and hospitals in these places. Voters need to see better broadband, better transport links and better high streets by the time of the next election

So Tweeted James Forsythe the political editor of the Spectator in a plug for his Times column. Now James is a typical London Sort whose knowledge and experience of everyday life in the North of Engand is close to zero. Not that I want to beat up on folk with an elite pubic school and Oxbridge education but when you see the phrase "these places" you get the impression that the idea of 'levelling up' doesn't in any way involve people like James getting to know anything about those places or the millions of people who live and work in them. For the likes of James, 'levelling up' is about a checklist of goodies handed over by a benevolent feudal overlord: "here peasants, have some cakes and ale for the holiday".

Elsewhere in the big city, other London Sorts are drawing up plans for that levelling up. Some of them have actually visited Grimsby, Mansfield or Mexborough (not stopping long and with the visit featuring meeting some consultants from Cheshire, the council chief executive and a token local councillor or business owner, plus the essential photo) but most prefer to rely on 'data'. And of course data is important but if you rely on information from interminable opinion polling (all produced by other London Sorts) then you're going to miss some of the nuance of what makes people who aren't London Sorts tick.

I read some deeply patronising articles explaining to us Northern folk that, of course, we are absolutely lined up behind a carbon neutral future - look there's some polling - and this means we're really fine about having people with man-buns and bicycles tell us we'll have to dump our cars for a more expensive alternative. All this was meant to show that ("really you know" writes some professor with a nice house in Salisbury or a flat in Docklands) the government deciding to splurge on 'green' investment is absolutely what all those flat-capped Northern sorts voted for nearly a year ago.

Part of the problem is 'investment' but there are too many people, including some in powerful and influential positions up here in the provinces, who seem to think that the very fact of government capital investment is enough, even if the net economic effect of that investment is negative. "Hey, we've got money for a tram and the regeneration of our high street, levelling up yay!" Then a few years later the call for cash is renewed because that investment ('vital investment' is the approved term) hasn't actually made much difference to people's lives.

The list given us by James Forsythe - broadband, transport links and high streets - represent the standard fare of lazy thinking about local economies and regeneration. Broadband is important, but the economic gain from spending billions of other people's money on connecting even more remote places provides at best marginal benefits and, in reality, probably delivers less actual return over its lifetime than the cost of building it. And this is before we start thinking about 5G and developing mobile technology. The thing is, however, that the minister can pop up in some carefully selected 'left behind' place and make a grand announcement about investment in broadband knowing that the actual economics of this investment makes no difference to its short-term political effect.

The same goes for investment in trains and, doubly so, talk about high streets. You can't make Mexborough's high street like the one you visited on your 'staycation' in the West Country because Mexborough is never going to be Frome or Totnes. And high streets aren't declining because of anything that government has done, they are declining because of the way in which we shop. It is crazy to pretend that taxes or great regeneration schemes are going to stop us doing our shopping sat on the sofa in our pyjamas. We know that Britain has a huge oversupply of retail property - in some towns (or "these places" as James Forsythe calls them) by as much as 50% - yet we are piling millions into regeneration plans that may well improve the public realm and might see a few 'community' schemes that work well but simply ignore the fundamentals.

Maybe this sort of Potemkin Village approach to levelling up is the right one - lots of cheering stories in the local papers, plenty of work for architects and consultants, and a sort of feel-good effect - but over a longer term it simply ignores the primary grumble. Let's be blunt here, the thing that pisses off 'these places' is the patronising, noblesse oblige of London Sorts. Don't get me wrong, places will always chase the investment, it will always be welcome even if it isn't really what's needed, but we all know up here in 'left behind' land that the attention, effect and enthusiasm will always be directed to London. And, because London Sorts are doling out the cash, then London Sorts will decide what's important.

The other day Boris Johnson mentioned a level crossing in Cleethorpes and various London Sorts claimed this as some sort of sea change in government attitudes to such investment. I'm sure this is welcomed in North East Lincolnshire but there are literally hundreds of such schemes and associated grumbles across Britain. Pretty much everywhere has one. The thing is, however, that the only one of these schemes that merits a ministerial task force is a bridge in London. No national media outlet gives a minute's thought to the hundreds of villages without an adequate bus service but minor timetable changes to trains from Brighton to London will hit the headlines. If it doesn't affect London Sorts it doesn't get attention.

'Levelling up' is as much about attention as it is about money. The lack of attention results in the sort of simplistic solutions listed by James Forsythe. Plus the continuing view that what London Sorts think is right for London must, obviously, be right for Tow Law and West Bromwich. So we get a (London-based of course) new quango to make sure councils are spending money on cycling schemes and not on maybe more useful things like better bus services. We get London Sorts telling us we should be building five-story Maida Vale mansion blocks everywhere because they like the vibe of that street scene, when the actual people who want a home prefer a three-bed semi with car parking and a garden.

Levelling up, if it is to mean anything, has to include levelling up that attention. Part of this might mean moving policy-makers away from London. Not to Manchester or Bristol but to Accrington or Keighley. Better still stop recruiting from the same little pool of Oxbridge graduates who went to your school. Beyond this we need some real devolution. Not the regional mayor rubbish - that's just the same old pretence of giving powers to local places while controlling the money and the rules from an office in Whitehall. Let local councils develop schemes themselves and raise their own finance. Allow local people the space and attention for them to actually run the places - "these places" - where they live. And let's have less of the patronising approach where the only attention places outside London get is a gentle pat on the head as the minister zips back south having launched the latest, doomed-to-fail, regeneration fund.

...

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

So we voted Conservative and all we got was these lousy windmills

Like most of you, I've never been to Workington. The nearest most of us get to West Cumbria is a nice B&B in the more accessible parts of the Lake District. I am therefore, like all those soy-latte drinking, man bag toting think tankers in London, eminently qualified to talk about "Red Wall" voters and why the government's green strategy is a veritable minefield just waiting to blow up in ministers' faces. It's not that the idea of 'decarbonising' is a bad idea but rather that the headline - 'no more diesel or petrol cars after 2030' - is guaranteed to get the wrong sort of debate once people in Workington are allowed out again.

Instead of a measured conversation about how we maintain industry and keep the lights on while shifting to a 'green' future, we will get a debate about cars. And cars matter. I apprecate that the badly dressed, scruffy-bearded policy wonks in London don't think cars matter, but they do - even in lefty-voting, metropolitan elite dominated places like Oxford, cars are important.


In a town filled with students, populated by many of the trendiest greens going, and run by lefties, the number of cars has increased over the last ten years. Cars really do matter and this means that if you make your headline 'Build Back Better' policy about phasing out the cars people drive right now then you're going to get some kick back. Not from the sort of people you've put on you policy panels or the nice young folk you employ as 'Special Advisors' but from the bloke in Aspatria with a six-year old 4x4 in his drive. Instead of 'how can we make Britain greener', we have 'why are you taking my car off me'.

If you spend any time on Twitter, you will have noticed how the green stuff has brought about a shift in the emphasis of transport planners. Until recently transport planning was utterly dominated by trains and, to a large extent, this remains the case despite railways literally destroying value. But now the new generation of planners want to talk about 'walkability' and 'bikeability'. These planners want to hem you into tidy little 15-minute neighbourhoods within which all your needs can be met. And fifteen minutes walking is about a mile - this creates a series of semi-isolated factory towns and represents a withdrawal back to the pre-car days when ordinary people seldom travelled more than a few miles from their front door. A sort of renewed feudalism driven by the idea that travel is destroying the planet.

Although current news is understandably dominated by the ongoing Coronovirus pandemic, this anti-car (I know electric cars are still cars but people will see it as anti-car) attitude represents a big city focused, London-centric view. That bloke in Aspatria isn't going to cycle to Cockermouth to visit his brother, especially since he's got his wife and two kids in the car with him. And there probably isn't a reliable bus service even if he'd consider the cost and inconvenience of such an option. To people in Workington - as well as for people right across the UK - the car isn't some sort of indulgence but is absolutely vital and central to their lives. Even for people who don't own a car. If you're planning on 'levelling' up places like Workington (or Keighley, or Mansfield, or Recar or a hundred other small towns in the North and Midlands) you don't do it by questioning the centrality of the car to the lives of everybody living in those places.

If, instead of "we're taking your car off you", the headline had been, "we're going to invest in greener energy and support new green technologies" then those Red Wall voters would mostly give the thumbs up. But because the government decided it preferred to impress the producers on Newsnight and a load of green-inclined voters in West London (who aren't going to vote Conservative any time soon), we have a set of policies that are floating face down in the water.

We see this time and time again as London-based policy people design policies that reflect their lives then impose them onto people who don't live, and probably don't want to live, those lives. A housing policy dominated by a set of people who think five-story terraced housing is the only beautiful housing form, an economic strategy founded on the delusion that people in grand London offices can pick industrial winners, and a rural policy written by people whose experience of the countryside is visiting Daddy's place in the Cotswolds. Food policy gets written to impress the policy wonk's vegan girlfriend and public health continues with its sneering, snobby view that everyone outside London, and especially in the North, is a fat ugly drunk with a fag in their mouth.

I don't speak for 'Red Wall' voters but I'm sure that they, after getting Brexit done and clamping down on immigration, wanted a change of tone. Less of the preachy, righteous stuff beloved of the think tanks and public policy mongers, and more practical and down-to-earth ideas about better schools, improving hospitals, protecting jobs, building roads and planting trees. People wanted government to do its job better, to invest in local infrastructure, and to talk in the same language rather than spend its time nudging us into state-approved lifestyles, or nagging us about our middle-age spread or the second glass of wine.

Instead they're taking the 4x4 off us and building lots of windmills for folk in Workington (not West London, obviously) to stare at. We have an energy policy that looks like it was designed in California homw of the brown out. All based on the delusion that wind power is all we need. Plus the same loud posh tutting about how you should get a bike or walk more. Which is fine until you've three kids to get to two different schools and then to get to work in another town. Seems to me that, if we want to get a better approach, we should move the government's green planning team to an office in Aspatria, give them a bike each and see what they come up with. I'm pretty sure the policy will have a load more sympathy to cars and driving than current transport policy, will probably mention taxis as important, and might treat buses as something other than a sort of poor persons' train. Maybe too, there'd be less emphasis on millions of inefficient, expensive to maintain, and not especially green windmills because that's all they'll see out in the Solway Firth - shore to shore windmills.

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Monday, 9 November 2020

Thoughts on The New American Gothic (and the recent election)

 

Detail from Criselda Vasquez, "The New American Gothic"

Trump was going to build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it. I remember this, it was (quite rightly) a big criticism of the man and his policies. In one soundbite Trump signalled that his racism wasn't just about black people but hispanics too. The result was, as we remember, four years of unrelenting accusations of 'white supremacy' levelled at Trump, his family and his supporters. Now I'm not one to find excuses for Donald Trump but, while the media assailed him for his wall and his anti-immigrant rhetoric, something else happened:

“55 percent of Florida’s Cuban-American vote went to Trump, according to NBC News exit polls, while 30 percent of Puerto Ricans and 48 percent of ‘other Latinos’ backed Trump.” Nationally, he went from 28% among Hispanics to 32%.

Despite four years of rhetoric about immigrants (plus the media focus on Trump's aggressive anti-immigrant, anti-Mexico language) the former President got more votes from hispanic voters than he did in 2016. And this matters because the hispanic vote is the single largest bloc of working class votes in the USA. Indeed the USA, especially California, Texas and Florida, has a working class now overwhelmingly hispanic. When Criselda Vasquez paints her parents as the New American Gothic, the image is instantly recognisable to every American - a middle-aged hispanic couple stand in front of a battered Chevrolet truck, he's a farm worker, she's a cleaner. The latino maid is almost a Hollywood cliché these days but this shouldn't surprise as overwhelmingly US domesic workers - cleaners, carers, gardeners, even the pool boy - are hispanic.

And these domestic workers, almost without anyone noticing, got sacked as the pandemic sank its teeth into the American economy:

Domestic workers are facing unrelenting struggles. Their desperation is driven by unemployment rates of over 70% — far higher than what Americans faced during the Great Depression, when unemployment breached 25%. And most of those who have lost jobs during the pandemic have no idea whether their employers will ever hire them back. Most domestic workers surveyed by NDWA are their households main bread winners.  More than half were unable to pay the current month’s rent. Eight in ten now worry about eviction.  And for many, hunger is at their door. One third cannot afford to buy food for the week, and more than half were uncertain if they would have enough to feed themselves and their families.

So when the progressive pitch, the Democrats' big sell, to you is about something other than jobs, taxes, transport and housing, why on earth would you give your vote to them other than out of habit? In South Texas, Trump won places once reliably Democrat:

So the improvement from [2016 to] this year in all these counties—Zapata County, Starr County, Webb County, Zavala, Brooks County, Hidalgo County in Southern Texas. And this is not a Hispanic vote, right? This is a Mexican American vote. This is the heartland of the Mexican, of the Tejano vote. This is a Tejano vote in Texas.

The man who was going to build a wall got Mexicans to vote for him because they watched Biden and Harris attack the oil industry, criticise farmers and offer nothing to working class domestic workers clobbered by the pandemic. It remains true, however, that two-thirds of hispanic voters voted Democrat with the populations in northern cities especially pro-blue. But, if we take a different perspective, one not based on race but on economics, then what's happening here is part of a political reset as conservative voices become increasingly focused on working class issues (jobs, industry, cost of living) while progressive voices talk about middle class and elite interests like group rights, climate change and student loans. If you're a Mexican farm worker, you're far more bothered about how much a tank of gas costs you or the month's electricity bill than you are about using the right pronouns or elite arguments about white fragility.

Given that hispanics (of various origins and flavours) are a fifth of the US population and probably 40% of the working class, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Assuming Trump toddles off to play more golf, the next Republican leaders will need to speak good Spanish if they're to make the nativist offer - jobs, family, security, nation - work as an election pitch. Here in the UK, our media filters East Coast media to present an American that is black or white. Yet it's likely (unless Biden and Harris do better than Obama and Trump on stopping immigration) that there will soon be twice as many Hispanic-Americans as there are African-Americans. And on the West Coast - as the campaign against the California elite's affirmative action proposition 16 shows - the Asian-American vote is beginning to matter too.

So much of our analysis of the recent elections in the USA is simplistic (and, yes, the analysis here is only one slice of better analysis) but it is clear that, if the future for Republicans is a centrist pitch to the working classes around bread-and-butter issues like jobs and security, any successful candidate has to make a serious appeal to the hispanic working class voter as well as rednecks, 'Joe Six-Pack and the mid-West left-behind vote.

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